a plea for global education by nobel peace laureate rigoberta menchu tum
RIGOBERTA MENCHU: We are living in a troubled world, in a time of great uncertainty. It's a time to reflect about many things, especially about humankind as a whole, and the balance between collective values and individual values.
The world right now is preoccupied with business, buying and selling and making money. But solutions can be found in our community, among the indigenous peoples who are the victims of terrible repression and violations of the law in many parts of the world. You can find experience, self-educated people, and a whole side of science which is not well known.
There is a big change going on in the way people see the world: change in the concept of development, in the way people live together. But for this change to bear fruit, we need education on a global scale. Humankind will not recover from its mistakes without global education. The United Nations, human rights organisations, indigenous peoples, and all the countries of the world should concentrate their efforts on education. Solutions will come when the world becomes educated about global values, the common values of its inhabitants and communities.
We have to focus on solutions in this time of great challenges. If we just wait around, the problems will overwhelm us. We need to take the initiative, to launch local, regional and global projects, to unite our efforts, and really listen to indigenous peoples. We have to listen to people to find out what they want, to discover the solutions they have to offer for the future.
What should be done to protect indigenous peoples?
It is very important to understand that we indigenous peoples don't need "protection." What we do need is simply to be allowed to exist, to live, to let our own culture develop, and to recover the meaning of our own history. Indigenous peoples have always depended on their traditional wisdom and culture. Our cosmological vision, our way of thinking, our lifestyle have empowered us to survive through many difficult times in the past. Now that we stand at the close of the twentieth century, this fact should send a very clear message to the conscience of the world. We indigenous people reaffirm our struggle to survive!
To me, the most important thing is that indigenous people still possess a balance, an equilibrium with Mother Nature, a balance between human life and the earth itself. For us, the Earth is the source of knowledge, of historical memory, of life! But the rest of the world does not share this vision, and so they keep on destroying Mother Earth. Indigenous people aren't strange. We may be special, but we are also part of the modern world in which we all live. We are part of the diversity of cultures, the plurality of races, the mixture of societies on all the continents where we live today. Indigenous people are not some myth from the past, a myth that survives only in legends and in ruins!
You should find out what indigenous people can contribute toward a global vision, a vision of nature, of development, of community based on the oral transmission of our ancestors' knowledge from generation to generation. You should also look at the way we think about nature. Around the world, there have been many struggles in which indigenous peoples have played an important role. But their names are never mentioned, their contributions have been ignored. Others have given new names to these concerns which indigenous peoples have always cared about.
The fact that indigenous people are among the most marginalised of the marginalised people on Earth, among those whose rights have been violated for so long, is a call to conscience. I hope this call will be answered in the new millennium which now awaits us.
The time has come now to stop feeling sorry for all the wrongs that have been done to indigenous people. The time has come to go beyond blame, beyond sympathy with our cause, beyond identifying with our world-view. It's time to implement programmes – alternative projects and technologies that combine the benefits of science and the benefits of nature, that respect the traditional ethno-botanical knowledge of peasants and the age-old experience through which they have survived – and to combine these with the advances of technology and science. We indigenous peoples have nothing against the innovations of technology and science when they are shown to be appropriate. But we are against such innovations if they are applied in opposition to the values which indigenous people protect, which are those of life, nature, and historical memory.
No people can flourish who do not know their own past. The past is a good foundation for the present, and an inspiration for the future. People owe it to history and to the present to prepare for the future. Finally, I sincerely hope that now, at the end of the twentieth century, indigenous people will never again be forced into extinction on the face of this Earth. We need international law, national legislation, the legal protection of our human rights, as well as the respect and acceptance of society in general, in order to face the future.
To listen to indigenous peoples is to listen to the women and to those who know how to love this earth. We may be only a small grain of sand, but it is one which will prove important for the challenges Humankind must face in the next millennium.
What do you feel about human rights?
Among the nations which have suffered the most widespread human rights abuses, unpunished atrocities, murders, terror and fear, is Guatemala. The recent historical events in Guatemala have fragmented the culture of the Mayas in many places. Displacement, refuge, exile are daily facts of life in my country. However, these things have also allowed us to learn something more in our experience of the world. In Guatemala today, there are some very courageous women who are making a stand, indigenous women, who are leading the struggle! We believe the war in Guatemala is no disgrace for the Mayas. It's a disgrace for the people of Guatemala...
Unfortunately, the rest of the world has turned a blind eye on the situation. Atrocities still go unpunished, and many governments have helped to cover up the problem. I think it's important to say this, because the Guatemalan people know it, and we feel offended again and again when we realise that our country has been silenced. This has also made us aware of the plight of other people. Solidarity between nations must be militant, constant, and continuous. There is a need for international organisations to which the victims can turn for help, to which people can go to defend their lives and to protect their human rights.
Finally, I believe that peace in Guatemala is not a myth. Peace in Guatemala is not a myth, neither is it a myth for Central America, or for the people of this continent or other continents. Rather, it is a process which requires effort and consciousness-raising around the world, especially among those in governments and in large organisations who have the power to make important decisions.
Peace requires work in the heart of the small society that is Guatemala. But Guatemala is also part of Humankind, and what has been going on in Guatemala is a very bad example for the world and for future generations. I hope that the world will one day acknowledge its responsibility and will not be indifferent to any war, no matter where it happens, or to any violation of human rights, no matter where it may occur, because the massacre in the Quiché is a wound in the heart of Humankind. What is going on in Guatemala now? [i.e. March 1993]
It's a very complex situation. The war is officially over, yet there are continuous assassinations, enormous suffering and grinding poverty. But the greatest problem in Guatemala is that most people cannot participate in the political negotiations, because they don't speak Spanish! An emergency parliament needs to be formed immediately to address the problem. Blatant disregard for the law is rampant. We must put an end not only to these violations of law, but also to the suppression of truth, to the repression and persecution of over a million civilians who take part in our self-defence patrols.
About a million people have been displaced within the country. Some have sought refuge in the mountains, where they suffer a great deal of bombing. Over two hundred thousand Guatemalans are refugees. Many people have been forced to permanently abandon their farms or leave their towns. In other words, the war is not just the armed conflict which occurs every day, but it's also the general persecution which afflicts the whole economy and society, and which also – as a routine matter – limits our freedom of speech. In the end, the people of Guatemala are paying a very high price for all of this. If we don't recognise the magnitude of the problem in Guatemala, we will never come to grips with the whole issue of development both in Central America and throughout the continent. Guatemala has suffered a lot of repression, and especially, many unpunished crimes. I would say that ninety percent of the people who suffer from the war, the widows and the orphaned children in the streets, are indigenous people. This is a fact. It's not only a racial issue; it is just a reality which happens to fall on the heads of the indigenous people.
The Guatemalan Civil War ended in 1996 with a peace accord between the guerrillas and the government, negotiated by the United Nations through intense brokerage by nations such as Norway and Spain. Both sides made major concessions. The guerrilla fighters disarmed and received land to work. According to the U.N.-sponsored truth commission (the Commission for Historical Clarification), government forces and state-sponsored, CIA-trained paramilitaries were responsible for over 93% of the human rights violations during the war.
In the last few years, millions of documents related to crimes committed during the civil war have been found abandoned by the former Guatemalan police. The families of over 45,000 Guatemalan activists who disappeared during the civil war are now reviewing the documents, which have been digitized. This could lead to further legal actions.
During the first ten years of the civil war, the victims of the state-sponsored terror were primarily students, workers, professionals, and opposition figures, but in the last years they were thousands of mostly rural Maya farmers and non-combatants. More than 450 Maya villages were destroyed and over 1 million people became refugees or displaced within Guatemala.
In 1995, the Catholic Archdiocese of Guatemala began the Recovery of Historical Memory (REMHI) project, known in Spanish as "El Proyecto de la Recuperación de la Memoria Histórica", to collect the facts and history of Guatemala's long civil war and confront the truth of those years. On 24 April 1998, REMHI presented the results of its work in the report "Guatemala: Nunca Más!". This report summarized testimony and statements of thousands of witnesses and victims of repression during the Civil War. "The report laid the blame for 80 per cent of the atrocities at the door of the Guatemalan Army and its collaborators within the social and political elite."
Catholic Bishop Juan José Gerardi Conedera worked on the Recovery of Historical Memory Project and two days after he announced the release of its report on victims of the Guatemalan Civil War, "Guatemala: Nunca Más!", in April 1998, Bishop Gerardi was attacked in his garage and beaten to death. In 2001, in the first trial in a civilian court of members of the military in Guatemalan history, three Army officers were convicted of his death and sentenced to 30 years in prison. A priest was convicted as an accomplice and was sentenced to 20 years in prison.
According to the report, Recuperación de la Memoria Histórica (REMHI), some 200,000 people died. More than one million people were forced to flee their homes and hundreds of villages were destroyed. The Historical Clarification Commission attributed more than 93% of all documented violations of human rights to Guatemala's military government, and estimated that Maya Indians accounted for 83% of the victims. It concluded in 1999 that state actions constituted genocide.
In some areas such as Baja Verapaz, the Truth Commission found that the Guatemalan state engaged in an intentional policy of genocide against particular ethnic groups in the Civil War. In 1999, U.S. president Bill Clinton said that the United States had been wrong to have provided support to the Guatemalan military forces that took part in these brutal civilian killings.
Since the peace accords Guatemala has had both economic growth and successive democratic elections, most recently in 2015. In the 2015 elections, Jimmy Morales of the National Convergence Front won the presidency. He assumed office on 14 January 2016.
In January 2012 Efrain Rios Montt, the former dictator of Guatemala, appeared in a Guatemalan court on genocide charges. During the hearing, the government presented evidence of over 100 incidents involving at least 1,771 deaths, 1,445 rapes, and the displacement of nearly 30,000 Guatemalans during his 17-month rule from 1982–1983. The prosecution wanted him incarcerated because he was viewed as a flight risk but he remained free on bail, under house arrest and guarded by the Guatemalan National Civil Police (PNC). On 10 May 2013, Rios Montt was found guilty and sentenced to 80 years in prison. It marked the first time that a national court had found a former head of state guilty of genocide. The conviction was later overturned, and Montt's trial resumed in January 2015. In August 2015, a Guatemalan court ruled that Rios Montt could stand trial for genocide and crimes against humanity, but that he could not be sentenced due to his age and deteriorating health.
Ex-President Alfonso Portillo was arrested in January 2010 while trying to flee Guatemala. He was acquitted in May 2010, by a panel of judges that threw out some of the evidence and discounted certain witnesses as unreliable. The Guatemalan Attorney-General, Claudia Paz y Paz, called the verdict "a terrible message of injustice," and "a wake up call about the power structures." In its appeal the International Commission Against Impunity in Guatemala (CICIG), a UN judicial group assisting the Guatemalan government, called the decision's assessment of the meticulously-documented evidence against Portillo Cabrera "whimsical" and said the decision's assertion that the president of Guatemala and his ministers had no responsibility for handling public funds ran counter to the constitution and laws of Guatemala. A New York grand jury had indicted Portillo Cabrera in 2009 for embezzlement; following his acquittal on those charges in Guatemala that country's Supreme Court authorized his extradition to the US. The Guatemalan judiciary is deeply corrupt and the selection committee for new nominations has been captured by criminal elements. 2018 UPDATE (multiplle sources)
In 2006, the Cantonal Court of Geneva, Switzerland, sentenced the former head of the Guatemalan police, Erwin Sperisen, to 15 years in prison for his complicity in the killing of seven inmates in 2006. He appealed the verdict but lost the case in 2018, when he was re-convicted for the deaths of seven prisoners under his control..